Rachel returns for dream arts role
A stint as theatre editor of Adelaide University Union’s On Dit magazine proved a career-building experience for Rachel Healy.
She believes it was fundamental to her role as one of Australia’s leading arts managers and cultural planners, culminating in her current position as co-artistic director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts.
“Being theatre editor at On Dit was an incredible break because it was the stepping stone into the rest of my career,” says Rachel.
She was bewitched by the arts from a young age and quickly joined the Adelaide University Footlights Club after enrolling at the University in 1987 to study arts and law.
But it was only because she had On Dit on her limited CV that she was plucked from a long list of applicants to be assistant editor on Lowdown youth arts magazine.
“The editor, Deborah Heithersay, was looking for someone who didn’t have an orthodox journalism background so picked my CV out of the pile,” says Rachel.
By this stage Rachel realised she was unlikely to fulfil her earlier ambition of becoming a performer but was still passionate about a career in the arts.
After 11 months as assistant editor of Lowdown she found herself editing the magazine and from there moved into arts management as administrator of the youth-focused Magpie Theatre.
“This was another incredible stroke of luck because Magpie was part of the State Theatre Company and the CEO at the time, Robert Love, became a great mentor,” says Rachel.
“Robert was generous with his time and knowledge and so patient. I was educated in arts management and administration through an old-school mentorship.”
As Rachel’s knowledge and experience grew so did the job offers. She landed the role of general manager at Handspan Theatre in Melbourne and was briefly manager of The Australian Ballet before being head hunted to manage Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney.
This signalled the start of a long-term friendship and professional collaboration with Neil Armfield, AO, one of Australia’s leading theatre, opera and film directors.
Neil was artistic director of Belvoir at the time and has rejoined Rachel as co-artistic director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts.
Rachel was at Belvoir for 10 years before taking the position as director of performing arts at Sydney Opera House and then the highly influential role of executive manager of culture for the City of Sydney.
Her brief was to build a cultural vision for Sydney, including a live music action plan for the next decade.
“It was an incredibly exciting opportunity after working in the field for so long because it meant I could step back and take a helicopter view of the arts sector and the cultural community more broadly,” says Rachel.
The city approved her plan and Rachel was preparing for its implementation when she was approached to take charge of the Adelaide Festival of Arts for the next three years.
“The prospect of doing it alone didn’t thrill me but then an idea was hatched to work with Neil. We have such a strong history of working together that it really made sense,” says Rachel.
“There’s a shorthand between us and we trust each other a great deal. Even when we have a disagreement it’s never personal or awkward – we usually take little breaks to reflect and marshal counter arguments!”
Rachel’s first day in the job was in July last year – a day she agrees was both exciting and daunting.
Cutting through in a market that now overflows with arts festivals is a challenge but she says the answer lies in the history of the Adelaide Festival.
“Unlike larger cities, Adelaide is perfect for a festival of this kind because we can take over all the urban spaces and deliver something extraordinary,” she says.
“It’s about creating work on an epic scale that wouldn’t occur otherwise – creating something in a completely unexpected environment and tapping into what some people call the ‘experience economy’,” she says.
The Australian premiere of Handel’s opera Saul under the direction of Barrie Kosky certainly falls into this category.
This is one of a few shows Rachel and Neil announced in the lead-up to the main program launch and it promises to be spectacular.
“Adelaide Festival was such a significant part of growing up in Adelaide that it’s hard to overestimate its importance. Having these extraordinary artists and companies from around the world arriving in Adelaide and taking over the city in March had a big impact on me.
“When you grow up here you think that’s normal and everybody has that experience – it’s only when I moved away that I realised that very few people have access to this kind of cultural immersion.”
Story by Ian Williams